PALO ALTO — Despite sweltering temperatures testing the capacity of the state’s electrical grid, California largely avoided rolling blackouts Tuesday just in time for cooler weather. So why did several thousand people in Palo Alto, Alameda and Healdsburg lose power?
Those Northern California cities and others may have inadvertently initiated rolling blackouts in error following a miscommunication with the California Independent System Operator Tuesday after it declared a rare stage 3 emergency. The three cities are part of the Northern California Power Agency, a consortium of locally owned electric utilities based in Roseville, which ordered the blackouts.
Elliott Mainzer, CEO of the ISO, said Wednesday morning that his agency, which manages California’s power grid, never gave utilities the order to begin rotating blackouts Tuesday night.
He said that the Northern California Power Agency misunderstood an ISO order to prepare for possible rotating outages.
“There was apparently some level of confusion between our dispatchers and their dispatchers about what was being requested,” Mainzer said.
“We did not need nor was it our intention to signal the need for rotating outages,” he added. “We’ll work with them to ensure there is no miscommunication tonight.”
The NCPA did not immediately return calls Wednesday.
Mainzer said he thought about five communities were affected in Northern California, with a total of about 45 megawatts of power that the NCPA inadvertently requested its members to shut off. That is a tiny percentage of the statewide demand on the grid, which reached 52,000 megawatts Tuesday night, an all-time record.
About 1,700 people lost power in Palo Alto Tuesday during a brief outage that lasted about 35 minutes. Palo Alto Utilities Department spokesperson Jordan Cowman said the city’s was one of several utilities across the state who were formally asked to “shed load,” or reduce power, by the NCPA. Palo Alto followed all protocols but Cowman said “it seems like the confusion was coming from the regulatory side.”
“We followed everything very very much to the letter of what was expected of us,” Cowman said.
Lodi in the Central Valley, which is also part of the NCPA, cut power to 1,372 customers across the city at about 6:20 after being asked to shed load 20 minutes earlier.
The outage lasted until 7 p.m., but by 8:30 p.m. the city informed customers via their Facebook page Tuesday that “we heard from NCPA at 8:30 p.m. that the load shed order to Lodi was in error” and that there was a “communication error between them and Cal ISO that caused NCPA to issue the order to Lodi and other NCPA members.”
In Healdsburg the outages started at 6:20 p.m. and power was off for about an hour. Alameda also notified customers Tuesday night that the ISO asked them to reduce electricity use from 6 to 8 p.m. Alameda shut down two circuits, Marina Village and East End, impacting about 1,400 customers from 6:05 p.m. to 7:05 p.m.
In a statement Wednesday, Alameda Municipal Power said “in conjunction with the CAISO, we are working to clarify procedures to ensure unnecessary outages do not occur moving forward.”
The municipally owned power agencies like Palo Alto and Alameda are separate from larger investor-owned utilities like PG&E and Southern California Edison.
The ISO and PG&E touted Tuesday as a win with “no load shed for the night” after issuing the stage 3 emergency and that “conservation played a big part in protecting electric grid reliability.”
The California ISO said peak electricity demand Tuesday hit 52,061 megawatts, setting a record from the previous high of 50,270 megawatts in 2006.
A megawatt — 1,000 kilowatts — is roughly enough electricity for the demand of 750 homes at once.
The ISO initially was projecting supply deficiencies of 400 to 3,400 MW between the hours of 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. Tuesday and pleaded with residents and businesses to continue to reduce power use in the late afternoon.
“It is certainly regrettable that we did have that one communication issue with one of our utility partners,” Mainzer said. “But more broadly when if you think of the magnitude of the event, with over 52,000 megawatts of load and all of our other utilities able to successfully run through that event, in general the communication as a whole was outstanding.”
While she didn’t lose power herself, Leah Russin of Palo Alto posted on a Facebook group for area parents in disbelief of the error.
“Are you seriously saying that Palo Alto has experienced three power outages in three days — two of which were equipment failures — and one was a MISTAKE?” Russin said. “I’m very upset that a city owned utility would make sure a grievous error — and I’m in general very disappointed in the lack of communication from our utility about what’s going on.”
She said Palo Alto Utilities Department has a lot to do to better communicate with its customers.
“PG&E customers seem to get more notice,” she said. “And our outage maps are inaccurate. My house was in the zone on the map indicated to have lost power all three times — and yet we never did.”
Contributed by local news sources